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Urban Wilderness, overview and history

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Landscaping for Backyard Wildlife by the Missouri Department of Conservation

by Marty Kraft

The Urban Wilderness (my yard) is an expression of my love for nature and my respect for her wisdom. It comes from a deep place inside that is beyond thought or words. It is an allowing of nature to demonstrate her balance, peace, order and wonder to us city dwellers who are disconnected from her. See the attached photos or visit the Urban Wilderness and connect to nature.

It’s just a lot in Kansas City.

The Urban Wilderness is a comer lot at 57th and Charlotte Streets in an older urban neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. It is a rectangle approximately 50 by 150 feet on a rectangular block. It is surrounded by lots sporting conventional lawns. The neighbors are nice people. Some really like the yard and a few don’t. Most are tolerant. I like it here.

The Urban Wilderness started its development in 1975 after I moved back into our family's home upon the death of my father. The larger trees and some shrubs were planted after 1954 when we bought our home. In 54, all the streets were arched over by huge elm trees. There were three in our yard. Orioles nested in their outer hanging branches.

Dutch elm disease teaches the value of diversity.

During the fifties I learned an important lesson from nature about diversity. Following an architectural fashion of the time, the city had planted the blocks around my house all in elm trees. When the Dutch elm disease epidemic struck, it swept from tree to tree. Almost all the trees died. Had they followed the example of nature and planted a wide variety of trees as you would find in a forest, this would not have happened. The disease could not have spread so fast. More elms would have escaped and other trees would not have been effected.

The change in the neighborhood was dramatic, especially in the summer. Before the streets were shaded and cool. Birds were abundant. After the Dutch elm swept through our streets were as hot and bleak and as new suburbs. I felt a deep and prolonged sense of loss. The city budget for tree replacement was overwhelmed but citizens were asked not to plant trees. Someday they would get to it and plant each block with the same species of tree, again. My father and I waited a few years. Seeing no new trees, we planted some and let other volunteers grow. After some 40 years many of the streets are shady again.

In the 1950s this land was a lawn. Although my father loved nature he cut grass, was at war with weeds and trimmed bushes into “acceptable” shapes. I remember returning home from school to find a quince bush trimmed into a ball. I had been watching it grow for months, enjoying it more and more as it reverted back into its natural shape. I was shocked and disappointed. This was the same man who at other times on our walks in natural areas would tell me that he felt closer to God in nature than he did in church. He was a devout Catholic.

After my returning to live here I continued to cut grass and “keep the yard up”. But like some seed had been planted, there slowly grew in me an urban Thoreau. Thousands of insects would die when I cut the grass. Why should I kill them? What length does the grass want to be? Who thought up the lawn in the first place? Why was it so important to people?

The idea grew more from my heart than my mind.

Slowly, organically and out of my gut and heart instead of my mind the Urban Wilderness developed. My mind questioned, “what will the neighbors think?” “What will they do to me?” Fortunately it also asked other questions. “Wouldn’t kids love it and learn from it?” “Wouldn’t it be cooler in the summer?” “Wouldn’t it say to people that the wilderness is important and we had better stop destroying it?” Wouldn’t it feed peoples souls?” My gut, heart and mind all agreed that a natural yard was indeed a good thing.

Progress was slow. My mind was well trained by society and kept having second thoughts. I would let the lawn get long and then all of a sudden, out of embarrassment I would grab the mower and buzz it all down with fear and anger.

In the back yard I let a small area under an oak and a walnut tree grow. I had read in a book, Findhorn Garden, how out of respect for nature they had let her do what ever she wished in certain area. This original area has only been stepped into about a dozen times in twenty years. It looks and feels great.

In the front yard, sometime around 1977, I decided to grow an edible landscape. I planted strawberries, asparagus, two kinds of apple, a peach and a cherry tree. In the parkway I planted a dwarf pear for all to share. Someone broke the pear off and after it came back someone hit it with a car. It’s gone now. I got a few strawberries and a couple spears of asparagus. In years of apple seasons I have gotten only a couple bites of apple that the squirrels didn’t get. The cherry tree fed us the most with several cobblers.

Moving toward old growth forest

Through this attempt I decided that I am an old growth forest kind of guy. Maybe I could help nature reach her climax vegetation for this area. Old growth forest, forests that have been let alone for hundreds of years, have a special magic to them. There is a peace and balance that I feel among the mosses and the ferns and the big thick bark. The forest floor with its thick soft humus beckons to me. This calm inspiration is precious beyond words. Walt Whitman wondered why he always had such lofty thoughts while walking under a certain old tree. I think that upon entering such a forest we humans can become part of a conversation of harmony that the plants have perfected over the years. We know that in an old growth forest the plants are all connected by a network of fungus mycelia. Perhaps some communication is actually taking place that science will someday discover.

The peace of nature can be felt.

Although the oldest Urban Wilderness forest trees only stretch back some 43 years we can already observe the peace. Ten years ago a neighbor said in defense of the Urban Wilderness, ”I find it a pleasure to look at the yard, to just gaze. Like I say, I live right across the street and I sit in my yard and gaze over into Marty's yard and it’s just really a peaceful feeling, the greenery and the nature, just the whole aspect of it. I get a pleasant feeling.” Another neighbor, a girl, age eight says, “I think Marty’s yard is neat. It’s really peaceful in the spring.” People who come to my door often comment on the stress they lose just walking up the walk.

Shortly after the edible landscape idea began to fade, around 1978-79 it came to my attention that some yellowish brown limestone rocks were being unearthed at a construction site. I had always Wanted a rock -wall and here was my chance. The rocks were beautiful and I was excited. I rented a dump truck and a small -high loader and on one Saturday I had five dump truck loads of rocks dumped in my yard. Three years later and after several encounters with the city codes people the wall was finished. It was so much more difficult than I expected. I thought the rocks would tell me where they wanted to go. If they did I either didn't know the language or wasn't listening. I had to struggle with each rock taking all my spare time to complete it. It looks great now though and this year chipmunks have finally moved in.

The “mountain” (about 3 ft high) came later. Another wish I had was to have a mountain, stream and lake. A friend up the street was building a swimming pool. I asked if I could have a truck load of dirt. As the truck backed in, over the sidewalk leading to my porch, the concrete crumbled under the weight. So in addition to mound of dirt that became a natural looking fountain and pool, the front walk became a sawdust path. The path is a constant source of pleasure and lends a lot to the ambiance. The fountain needed more research and now leaks. It looks pretty but will cost money to get it going. I hope to run it using solar panels.

There are a couple of logs, on the ground, running parallel to the sidewalk for passers by to observe the decaying process. We are in the process of putting in various shade loving native wildflowers in various locations. The parkway between the sidewalk and the street is requiring attention at this time. The parkway belongs to the city but the property owner must maintain it. Several large trees are now in the in this strip of land. Between these trees plants often grow higher than the city law allows. Between the large trees we are planting understory trees that do not grow as tall. They will shade the areas underneath inhibiting plant growth. Some of the wild flowers will be experimented with in these areas.

I hope you enjoyed reading about the Urban Wilderness and gain greater understanding of nature.

Article author and Urban Wilderness steward

Marty Kraft has had a life long love of nature. He has been involved in environmental education since 1964 when he became a high school biology teacher. Most of his work has been in public education programs including education for teachers. In 1987, Marty co-founded the Heartland All Species Project. Through An Species, he organized eight city-wide Earth Day celebrations for the Kansas City area and has written study guides for teachers to go with several of them. Marty served on the Missouri Governors Task For Environmental Education 1993-94. He now serves on the Education Task Force for Kansas City's Environmental Management Commission. He is currently working to integrate environmental understanding into neighborhood life.

You are invited to view some of the Heartland All Species Project material on another part of this web site. For great ideas on getting involved on your own block see Earth Day on Your Block.

Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.

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